“I can’t… I can’t speak about my son’s case until he is declared innocent. I’m sorry.”
With a cautious voice, the father of Ayoub Mahfouz, an 18-year-old student who was arrested on account of a Facebook post, refused to give a statement to Daraj. His son’s case is still pending, and he is still being tried even after his release.
His family were able to breathe a sigh of relief post his non-final ruling, with his mother ecstatic to the point of tears about her son’s presence. Even if the charges against him weren’t dropped, he could at least continue his studies, which his family views as a great benefit.
Mahfouz, the first-year baccalaureate high school student, bears calm and neutral features but appears to harbor concealed anger towards his country’s conditions. When he posted a few lyrics from the song “Ash al-Sha’b” (Long Live the People) on his Facebook profile, it was sufficient reason for the judiciary to condemn him on charges of “insulting the King and insulting a public official during his appointment.”
Mahfouz’s story dwells among a series of recent arrests of many Moroccan citizens and activists, on account of their public opposition to the state’s policies. This has made Moroccans extra guarded in their behavior with social media, seeing as one erroneous word may have serious consequences, and self-censorship has become necessary.
“If you open your mouth, you will be imprisoned.” This is how Omar Ben Shamsi, the Communications Director at Human Rights Watch, describes the reality of the freedom of expression in Morocco.
As for the human rights activist Khadija Al-Riyadi and others like her, Morocco is currently waging a “systematic and escalated attack on freedom of expression and opinion.”
On the other hand, the political authorities refute this, and consider it “exaggerated and inaccurate.” They justify the arrests by claiming that these oppositional voices ‘crossed the red lines’, by ‘violating sanctities and national fundamental principles, as well as targeting state institutions and symbols’.
A Black-Listed Song
Mahfouz was not the only convict. Charges were also pressed against one of the artists of the song “Long Live the People”, rapper Simo al-Kinnawy, who was imprisoned for a year for “insulting public officials and the judiciary”, owing to his cursing of the police on one of his social media platforms last November.
The song, black-listed by Moroccan authorities, was subject of debate amongst Moroccans recently, receiving plenty of heat in between those who regarded it as an explicit expression of the Moroccans discontent and frustration with their country, and others who instead viewed the piece as nothing more than mere sub-standard art loaded with cacophony, aiming to provoke the emotions of poor, marginalized citizens with messages that fall nothing short of populism.
Others even agreed with the government, and considered the song as laden with “radical” rhetoric, inciting hatred among Moroccans towards their country and offending their homeland and its principles and institutions.
Apologizing to the king and the Moroccan people was not enough to reduce “Moul Kaskita”’s sentence. In fact, he was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment with a fine of 40,000 Moroccan dirhams―equivalent to 4,000 dollars―by the Trial Court (in Settat, western Morocco).
However, this notion is “not justification for imprisoning a rapper for year, due to him practicing his right for freedom of expression,” according to Amnesty International’s Regional Director for North Africa and the Middle-East, Heba Morayef. She adds, “the Moroccan authorities should overturn his verdict and order his immediate release, without restrictions or conditions.”
Al-Riyadi does not view the song as radical. She tells Daraj, “We may argue about one or two words in the lyrics, but it’s still stemming from the soul, and the proof is the millions of views on YouTube. These singers expressed their pain.”
Al-Rady, Bouda and Others
It seems rapper Hamza Asba’i predicted what would happen to him, as he had stressed in his song that whoever demands his/her rights in Morocco ends up getting arrested, which is what wound up happening to him.
On account of his notorious song on Youtube, posted in October 2019, Asba’i was prosecuted for “insulting state institutions” in late last December, but then received a reduced sentence of 8 months of prison (which was originally 4 years), but was still being monitored after his release.
Arrests did not cease during November and December 2019, but also encompassed the activist and journalist Omar al-Rady, known for his press coverage of political movements, often bold and critical of the state’s policies. He was imprisoned for “insulting the judiciary and contempt of the court” on account of a tweet, which he later deleted, that included criticism of the court verdict against the Rif Movement detainees.
Nevertheless, the pressure from human rights activists and civil rights initiatives were optimally timed to follow up on al-Rady’s parole, as Moroccan journalists were hoping to push forward the framework of the recent Publishing and Press Law (issued in 2016), which accounts for the abolishment of prison sentences. However, the fact remains that journalists are still being prosecuted under the penal code, which local and international organizations consider a “retaliatory mechanism” weaponized by the political authority to settle accounts with the press.
The arrests also incorporated social media activists, such as Abdelali Bahmad, a.k.a. Ghassan Bouda, who was pursued by the authorities on December 18th for “inciting to insult the Kingdom’s flag, symbols, national unity, and disrespecting sanctities”. He was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment and a fine of 10,000 Moroccan dirhams, equivalent to 1,000 dollars, by the Khenifra court (north of the city center).
YouTuber Muhammad Al Sekkaki, a.k.a.”Moul Kaskita”, was also arrested for criticizing the king, and describing the Moroccan people as “idiots” (donkeys) in one of his videos on YouTube.
Apologizing to the king and the Moroccan people was not enough to reduce “Moul Kaskita”’s sentence. In fact, he was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment with a fine of 40,000 Moroccan dirhams, equivalent to 4,000 dollars, by the Trial Court (in Settat, western Morocco).
“Human Rights Setback”
Last November and December were “grim” in Morocco, according to jurists. They stress a “Human Rights Setback” and a return to the years of “repression” due to the subsequent arrests of Moroccan activists and citizens.
Over the past year, more than 17 arrests have been reported during the last two months of 2019, according to the figures presented by “The National Committee for freedom of the journalist, Omar Al-Rady, along with all prisoners of conscience, and defense of freedom of expression.”
Human Rights Watch’s annual report stated that although the “Press and Publication Law” abolishes prison sentences for crimes related to freedom of expression, the penal code keeps prison sentences valid for a bunch of offences related to peaceful speech, including anything that aims to “undermine” the Islamic religion and the monarchy, and “inciting against the territorial unity” of Morocco.
Along the same context, Omar Benchemsi has assured that “the state no longer searches for indirect methods to arrest its critics. Instead, it immediately arrests activists for posting and sharing their views online, in a clear, intimidating message sent by the authorities to those who have free opinions, in the digital field.”
On the other hand, Human Rights Watch does not deny the existence of a “space” and a margin for criticizing the government, provided that no harsh criticism is addressed to the monarchy, and that no “red lines” are crossed.
“Red lines are not acceptable in any democratic state,” Al-Riyadi responds.
“The red lines in freedom of expression are manifested in calls for violence, hatred, and the expression of racist opinions, and we did not record any of these abuses by these activists.” she added to Daraj.
“A free country, even if the human rights path is bumpy.”
“Morocco is a state that guarantees rights and freedoms, even if the human rights’ path is bumpy”, Moroccan Prime Minister Saad-Eddine al-Othmani responded to human rights activists.
Mr. al-Othmani does not deny the presence of human rights abuses but considers them “limited” in comparison to the time known as the “Years of Lead” in the 1970s―but he still finds it suitable to criticize prisoners of conscience and activists who have been prosecuted. He considers their actions to be “targeting the institutions and symbols of the state and insulting the homeland and its icons, which is a dangerous matter as it arrives within an international and regional context that wants to weaken the state’s power and internal stability.”
Al-Othmani tries to reside in a grey area, without prejudice towards the human rights file, explaining: “I do not want anyone to be imprisoned, or arrested. The judicial authority enjoys independence, and I―as Prime Minister―am obliged to respect the independence and the requirements of their work.”
To some extent, Amina Bouayach, President of the National Human Rights Council (a government body), supports the government’s point of view and admits that there is a “human rights management crisis” that arises above all, according to her, in the “management of protests”.
But at the same time, she denies the presence of any political prisoners in Morocco, except for “prisoners who were detained for being involved in acts of violence or violent expression of opinions during those protests.”
On the other hand, the human rights official ruled out “freedom of opinion and expression ever being fully guaranteed, in light of the presence of self-censorship by citizens and some interference sometimes in social networks”. However, she assures that Morocco never banned nor suspended any website or account on social media, over the past five years.”
“Freedom to the People”
The voices of human rights activists and supporters rise, denouncing arresting citizens because of their opinions, and commending commutation, including temporary release or judicial follow-up in case of release. But their urgent demands are to drop all charges against these activists, considering them “arbitrary”, “retaliatory” and “unjust”.
To that end, human rights institutions, in solidarity with the detainees, carried out some field and social media awareness campaigns under the hashtag: #FreedomtoThePeople.
Most prominent of these campaigns was the document of January 20, 2020, demanding the release of all prisoners of conscience in Morocco. It urged Moroccans to sign their full names in order to place pressure on the political authority and inform public opinion on the matter. The question then arises: Could such initiatives set the detainees free?
“Detainees are released through strong political pressure, a mere document or pamphlet alone is never enough, but it creates mobilization conditions to establish pressure groups,” answers Al-Riyadi.
Al-Riyadi emphasized the street’s opinion, i.e. the protests, as the best solution and added, “We have to remember that in the backdrop of the peaceful demonstrations and demands for freedom that invaded our region’s countries in 2011, a group of arbitrarily detained individuals was released―either in what’s known as the “Salafi jihadism” cases or files of political matters that affect activists―all of this was achieved under the pressure of the street.